It’s been a unique year for NFL scouts and personnel in evaluating talent, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That certainly applied to those who were trying to acquire valuable information and insight on former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson throughout the draft process leading up to the 2021 NFL draft.
It also led to some interesting little details stories of how these men and women went about doing their jobs while adjusting their fact-gathering process.
ESPN’s Rich Cimini examined the “worst-kept secret” in the NFL — the Jets drafting Wilson at No. 2 — while taking an extensive look behind the scenes at how Jets general manager Joe Douglas and the organization ultimately determined Wilson was their guy.
Here’s a look at a few of the highlights from this backstory:
A hug at pro day leads to valuable insight
Cimini explained that Douglas only met Wilson in person once during the draft process, at BYU’s pro day in late March. It was a meeting that made a strong impression — “Ultimately that pro day really, really cemented it,” Douglas told Cimini.
Wilson’s skill was on full display at pro day, including video of an off-balance 50-yard bomb that went viral.
There was also an odd request that Jets first-year head coach Robert Saleh made that day, Cimini explained. Saleh was the former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator before taking over in New York.
“He bumped into one of his former players, San Francisco 49ers linebacker and BYU alum Fred Warner. He asked Warner to hug Wilson,” Cimini wrote. “The idea, as first noted by Albert Breer of the MMQB, was to get a feel for the size of the quarterback’s upper body. There was talk around the league about his narrow shoulders.
“In the pre-pandemic world, Saleh could have done the hugging himself at the combine. Warner carried out the assignment — what linebacker would pass on a chance to wrap his arms around a quarterback? — and reported back to Saleh that Wilson’s size reminded him of Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes. The Jets are confident Wilson can fill out; his father was a 6-foot-3 and 283-pound defensive lineman at Utah, and his two younger brothers play linebacker.”
Which Wilson game got Douglas interested?
Douglas prefers to watch game film involving multiple NFL prospects, Cimini explained, and in this case, the Jets GM got introduced to Wilson when he watched tape of BYU’s 43-26 victory over Houston in mid-October 2020 at the suggestion of one of his scouts. Among the other players on the field that night was Houston defensive end Payton Turner, who went No. 28 overall to the New Orleans Saints.
Wilson had a standout night, completing 25 of 35 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for a team-high 40 yards in helping BYU rally for the win after trailing by 12 points late in the third quarter.
“One of the plays that stood out to Douglas was an 18-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter,” Cimini wrote. “Already ahead by three points, facing a third-and-15, Wilson read blitz and saw man-to-man coverage on the outside. Some quarterbacks would have played it conservatively with a safe pass, but he used his eyes to freeze the middle safety and fired a strike to Dax Milne in the back corner of the end zone to seal the victory.”
Douglas was so intrigued, he watched two more BYU games that night, Cimini said.
A former Ute provides insight on the BYU football media environment
When it comes to the Jets, there is always the consideration of how a player will be able to handle the pressure of the New York media. Fortunately for the Jets, assistant GM Rex Hogan had some knowledge of what Wilson would have been subjected to in terms of media scrutiny at BYU.
“Early in his career, Hogan spent a year as Utah’s director of football operations under coach Urban Meyer. He got a feel for the local vibe and saw how BYU, which now has its own TV network, generated a large share of the media coverage,” Cimini wrote. “There’s inherent pressure in being the BYU quarterback, he told the group, comparing it to Notre Dame. BYU has a reputation for quarterback excellence, having produced Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer, among others.”